Football Is Back – can West Ham avoid the drop?

My last article in this blog was written on March 7, almost three months ago. We were about to face Arsenal, but I was eulogising about our performance against Southampton describing it as one of the most enjoyable visits to the London Stadium this season. The 3-1 victory was well deserved and in my opinion a fair reflection of the game despite the visitors having the lion’s share of possession which can be a very misleading statistic. As I wrote at the time, no points are awarded for having the ball; only the result counts.

I also wrote that it seems likely to me (not the boldest of predictions!) that the three relegation slots will be occupied by three of the six teams currently propping up the table. Nothing has changed there of course, although quite how the different clubs play their remaining games in empty stadiums after such a long lay-off is difficult to predict. Much may depend on the motivation of the teams that they are facing. Perhaps the ideal fixtures will be those against mid-table sides with little to play for.

One day in the future there will be a review (well there will be many reviews!) of the effect of Covid-19 on life in this country during this period (which is still a long way from being over of course), and sport will be one of the topics looked at closely. Many have criticised the decision to hold the Cheltenham Horse Racing Festival in March, Liverpool’s game against Atletico Madrid, and England v Wales in the Six Nations rugby, the last major events to take place prior to the lockdown. Many feel that lockdown came too late.

Football was closed down when Mikel Arteta was tested positive for coronavirus on March 13, just a few days after our last game at Arsenal, but before the “nationwide lockdown” came into force. Football announced its own lockdown before the Government did. The official death toll in the UK at that time stood at 11. Now the figure is approaching 40,000 it is felt that it is time to resume. Many people throughout the land will lament the return of the national game, and will question the decision to bring it back. Those people who have lost love ones may not share the delight of those who cannot wait for the festival of football due to begin in a couple of weeks’ time. It is a difficult balancing act, as in so many decisions in life at the moment, and one which has its supporters on both sides of the argument.

Of course football behind closed doors is not quite the same product as when the fans, who are the lifeblood of the game, fill the stadiums every week. I share my co-blogger Geoff’s dismay at watching the German product when it got underway, although I guess we will be a little more interested when watching the team we support, despite the lack of atmosphere. Of course every game that remains in the season can be viewed on TV, with many free-to-air, a demand made by the Culture Secretary. I did read that we could use the red button to switch on artificial crowd noise generated by the broadcasters. I remain wary of that, although apparently early attempts at doing this at some foreign venues (Australian Rugby League, for example) have been reported upon favourably.

As our games come up I will resume the regular blogging of games played and previews of forthcoming ones. This far ahead I haven’t really got a clue what will happen. I made some fun predictions using a variety of differing methods in my last article, but much of that has gone out of the window now. At least we have a fit squad (although Ogbonna, Cresswell, and Antonio were late in starting, it would appear that all are now in full training) and many will be needed if the predicted muscle strain-type injuries arise with many games being played in a short period of time. We had three players sidelined by injuries when the season came to a halt, and all three (Fredericks, Yarmolenko and Wilshere) are also now back in training.

Of course, if the Premier League hadn’t restarted we would have retained our top flight status by the skin of our teeth, that is, purely on goal difference. That is because the decision has been made that three teams will be relegated, and if necessary a points per game calculation will be used. So, if anything happens between now and the restart to abandon plans to resume the season, then we are guaranteed a place in the Premier League for the season that follows.

What is worrying is that something may happen at any time once the games have restarted that could abandon the season at that point. For that reason all the clubs involved in the relegation tussle will be anxious to pick up points in the early games to ensure that they are not in the bottom three (on a points per game basis) at any time should the curtain suddenly fall.

Of course West Ham are notoriously slow starters, and therefore it is hoped that the team are ready to fire from the outset. On paper, our opening three fixtures are particularly tough. Although two of them are at “home”, the advantage of home games may perhaps be diminished by the empty stadiums. And we don’t have the best home record anyway! David Moyes has staged sessions at the London Stadium to prepare the players for playing in front of the empty stands, including full matches involving the whole squad.

In the opening three games we face Wolves, Chelsea and Tottenham who are all involved in the race to qualify for European places, so no easy games there against sides with little to play for! In addition, we also have a visit to Old Trafford in the penultimate game of the season, and they too are likely to still be involved in trying to qualify for next season’s Champions League.

We play three of our rivals that are involved in the bottom six (Norwich, Watford and Aston Villa are three of the final four games, all fighting for their lives), and just two games against sides who would appear to be comfortably mid-table, Burnley and Newcastle. Many observers may believe that Norwich are already down, and although they are red hot favourites for the drop, they still have the opportunity to save themselves with games against Watford, Southampton, Brighton, Burnley and ourselves, all potentially winnable matches. It could be that our final match of the season against Villa at the London Stadium might be crucial.

Although Brighton currently have the most points of the bottom six teams, perhaps on paper they face the toughest run-in, so it’s anybody’s guess what will happen. I’ll stick my neck out at this point and predict relegation for Norwich, Bournemouth and Villa, with Brighton finishing just above them, and Watford and ourselves pulling clear. That prediction may well change more than once as the season draws to a close!

Stay alert everyone!